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PUBLICITY: Dorian Cantrell (310) 313-7200
When I spoke with Jill Cunniff, lead singer of alterna-girl pop group Luscious Jackson, she explained her album as a mood record made to bring the beach to caged up city dwellers. I hope it will also bring the city to homesick urbanites everywhere. The poignant pop chanteuse hasn’t been in the public eye for six years, but has created a brand new solo album entitled City Beach, to be released on February 20, 2007 by indie label The Militia Group. The twelve-track album is a breezy, earnest yet celebratory piece aglow with motherly wisdom and metrical nods to the unassailable grit and color of urban life. The album is dedicated to Coney Island, New York, a city beach known for its faded glory. Visiting Jill’s home to discuss her new solo record, I was greeted by countertops full of heart-shaped pink cupcakes for kids, and chopped watermelon at the hottest time of the summer. Amidst the bursting fire hydrants in still-lively Brooklyn, the party starts, the slick vinyl spins in the saxophone afternoon and Jill sings: get down now. Jill was born and raised in NYC, and spent her days in Greenwich Village in an intense, bursting time of artists and individuals searching for like-minds to connect with. Her first musical milestone dates back to the 1980’s when at the tender age of thirteen she had her birthday party at CBGB, parents in tow. With a liberating exposure to the raw, prismatic music found in the less-visible sectors of the city, junior high school was only a day job. Traces of late night, teenage club hopping can be heard throughout Cunniff’s musical choices and acute, inviting lyricism. Jill was in a rock & roll play in her neighborhood, right in the heart of an ardent artistic community where, as Jill described: you find the freshest kids break dancing right down the street from St. Marks Sounds record shop and Rat Cage Records, which is where Jill’s friends the Beastie Boys first sold their records. Jill recalled: we used to help our friends sell records on the street back then, and it was such a great place to learn about music just hanging out and being a teenager. All the shop owners were artists and musicians; it was a cultural exchange. At the time, things were intense we used to just hang out the window and see the craziest things go by. This group called the Panic Squad rolled by once in the back of a truck, playing loud punk rock all the way up 6th Avenue. Everything was in-your-face and it was good, it’s what inspired me. As a teenager, everything is intense, and being exposed to good art and music is so inspiring. I loved all the Lower East Side storefront galleries and people bonding on the street. At fifteen, Jill learned to play the guitar self-taught with a friend who played her a song on one string, Jill was hooked on songwriting right out of the gate. It came naturally to her, but as a songwriter, not an instrumentalist. Jill explains, If I had to take classes and learn how to play music, I think I would have quit. It’s so important to have the right initial musical experience finding out what kind of musician you are, or else it could go very wrong. I started writing songs with lyrics and just playing them. Cunniff began playing with punk bands in basements at age 15, with different incarnations of the Beastie Boys, her street singing band the Moppy Skuds and others. The DIY ethic that surrounded her in her early years prompted Jill to make moves, editing a music fanzine with friends called Decline of Art. Jill’s done it her way from the start, but she also appreciates the many inspiring influences she’s been surrounded by. You can’t teach music appreciation. Whether it’s a recording or any concert where you feel inspired, sitting in a classroom learning about music just doesn’t seem to come close. Good music is a soundtrack to life it puts you in a place, creates a mood. Jazz always seems to do it for me: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, these musicians make me feel like I am in my life, whereas often I feel like I’m just racing through. With this album, I wanted to evoke a mood for the listener, a kind of slowed down longing. I also made sure to add some beats. In the wake of the amicable split of Luscious Jackson, Jill continued recording and collaborating with a varied, talented and brilliant group of artists. Between writing with musicians behind the scenes including Emmylou Harris, Vivian Goldman and others, Jill wasted no time in creating her own music. She went out and bought a Mac, pro tools, and learned how to program and produce the way she wanted to: I chopped-up samples, hid them slightly, turned them around fiddled with and re-worked sounds and vocals. I learned how to record my voice better, when you record yourself it’s a very un-self-conscious process. City Beach was mostly recorded at her studio, Streetwise Lullabies, in her home city of New York, and Emmylou Harris appears on the last track to the album, Disconnection. City Beach has underlying lullaby-like tones and soothing qualities that naturally shone through while laying down the record. Cunniff described the sessions as being very unself-conscious, and also non-formulaic. Jill has recently been involved a few more commercial, pop-oriented collaborations, and she was anxious to get back into the music she loves: away from the strict formats that come with pop music and all the should-be. Always going with whats innate, Jill also moves along with what she gravitates to musically, “I was attracted to hip-hop, dusty samples, old and scratchy also beautiful, female-vocal heavy, Brazillian music.” City Beach comes along with hits of what Jill listens to at home Brazilian mixtapes, Bebel, Astrud and Jao Gilberto and Prince Paul among many others. When I sat with her, we listened to the 1965 Charlie Byrd, Brazilian Byrd. I also do a lot of art. Painting. I’d love to do a painting show, she added, showing me a painting that she and her five-year-old daughter painted together. Mama Jill the painting says, in a scribbly-cute handwriting of her daughter Chloe. Jill also painted the cover art for City Beach. Her other daughter, Piper, will be turning two this year. The record also exemplifies the other side to Jill’s personality: a certain edginess akin to the kind that one feels while being in the city brought on by beats, that overarching grit, and lyrics relating Jill’s perceptions of life in the city. How Brooklyn feels like the NYC of old, while nowadays, a lot of Manhattan has been gentrified and glossed-over. Brooklyn still has a lot of the funk and moxie of the old town but will soon see a lot of the polishing that Manhattan did, with rumors of the cleaning-up of Coney Island and it being surrounded by glass and made squeaky-clean. These things still remain important to Jill, just as they did fifteen years ago. Well, Chinatown’s still here, and taxi drivers get the best opportunities to find that old vibe same with watching old Martin Scorcese films. There is a lot of character still found just being in the subway, but Manhattan has definitely become a place of commerce with way too many sunglasses and handbags. If I look, I can still take walks and find the mysteries of the city I grew up in.